Having meaningful conversations about your funding approach
The Shears Foundation Approach
The Shears Foundation is a family foundation, set up in 1994, which makes grants of around £600,000 to £700,000 each year, mostly in the North East of England.
When I first heard about IVAR’s #FlexibleFunders call to action for open and trusting grant-making, there was an immediate appeal. The Shears Foundation is founded on principles of trust and mutual understanding between us and those we are helping to support. As a family foundation with a board of committed trustees, we are in an ideal position to be flexible, agile and take a degree of risk. Our philosophy is that we can be an effective funder through:
HAVING MEANINGFUL CONVERSATIONS > BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS > ESTABLISHING TRUST
In fact, the reaction from some of our trustees when I proposed that we should take the pledge and sign up can be illustrated with this one response:
“I think we are already doing everything we can, in the best possible way”.
After some discussion, we agreed that joining IVAR’s Community of Practice would give us a great opportunity to further develop what we do, hear about others’ best practice, and also share our own experiences in a cooperative and collaborative forum.
This ties in with my own philosophy and that of the Shears Foundation’s founders: it is vital for any organisation to adapt and improve through self-evaluation and continuous improvement. Hearing and learning from what others do is a key component of this.
In this blog, I’d like to share my experience of attending the first Community of Practice online event in April 2021.
The Community of Practice
I wasn’t sure what to expect from the first online meeting, apart from a warm welcome. What struck me straight away was the range of attendees: large and medium-sized family trusts and foundations; place-based funders; national funders; funders with interest in a particular field or theme; CVS’s and Community Foundations were all in attendance. The beauty of this was a diverse range of perspectives and challenges that were discussed in moving closer to the eight commitments.
What was particularly interesting were the lessons learnt by funders from the Coronavirus pandemic. Many of the participants recognised that the groups that they supported had to adapt, change and think on their feet, almost overnight in March 2020. Funders overwhelmingly recognised that they had a responsibility to match the adaptability, resourcefulness and agility of their grantees.
Funders had employed several important strategies in response, proving that we can work more flexibly. Strategies included automatically unrestricting grants, allowing delays and repurposing of grants for project funding, and accelerating and simplifying application processes.
Most importantly, there seemed to be a common thread: as funders we needed to value what a charity/beneficiary achieves, not how they achieve it.
Another key takeaway was to recognise the need for unrestricted funding and trust our grantees to know the best way to spend funds to achieve their goals. We currently offer core funding for funding a particular role / paid position or perhaps a specific non-project aspect of running costs. However, this isn’t truly ‘unrestricted’, and this is a discussion I’d like the trustees to have at our Annual General Meeting (AGM).
It was clear that the organisations attending were at different stages of their learning journey to being more open and trusting in their grant-making.
The session provided the ideal introduction, with open and honest discussion, respect for differing viewpoints and a positive and optimistic atmosphere.
I’m looking forward to being part of this as time goes on and incorporating insights into our practice.
One thing we could improve is getting feedback from the groups and charities we support on how we work. It’s something that we will be building into our processes in future.
However, I was asked to make a presentation recently on how we had responded to the Coronavirus pandemic. I wanted to get some “quick and dirty” feedback and asked 25 of our recent grant recipients (a mix of groups we’ve known for years and some new to us) to honestly describe our relationship in just three words.
The word cloud above shows we have the basis we need to build even more open and trusting grant-making in the future.
The biggest challenge for The Shears Foundation
We are fortunate to have a strong board with different backgrounds and wide-ranging attitudes to risk. I think balancing this range of perspectives and settling on an agreed attitude to risk is our next step, but it could be a challenge going forward.
In the words of one of our trustees:
“My only query would be in relation to commitment 3: accepting risk. I was just wondering how this squares with our duties as trustees and in relation to what the Charity Commission expects from us. I know that every grant we approve comes with a degree of risk, and I’m sure in practice, we would continue to assess each application with the same degree of rigour. But if this initiative is successful, I wouldn’t want it to evolve into something binding that might clash with our own due diligence processes.”
What is clear is that sharing experience, practice and solutions with others through this group will really inform how we approach this challenge and others in the future.
How to get involved
You can find out more about open and trusting grant-making at our Flexible Funders webpage, including how to sign up to our Community of Practice. For more details or to share your own Flexible Funders story with us, please contact email@example.com